When your son says he’s a girl, or your daughter says she’s a boy, how do you handle it?
Wren Kauffman, who was born a girl, remembers being three years old and wanting to wear Spider-Man pyjamas. In grade school, female classmates asked why he planned to be The Thing for Halloween instead of a princess, as they all were. And after seeing The Incredibles, he asked everyone to call him Dash, a male character in the film. His parents asked him why not Violet, his sister?
“At first we thought these were preferences, that this child was confused,” says Wren’s mother, Wen Kauffman. “That’s the place you operate from, ‘this is so cute, Wren thinks she’s a boy.’ But when Wren, whose given name was Wrenna, persisted in his preferences, and at age six began asking his parents when does he get to be a boy, both his mother and father slowly realized it was more than a phase.
“He asked to start again, to go back inside and be born the right way. There would be tears and outbursts of anger. Because he was still a child, I thought that would go away. I would snuggle him and say, ‘I understand you’re frustrated but there are lots of good things about being a girl.’”
Help came from Wren’s kid sister, Avy. “Wren had asked Avy to tell us,” explains Wen. “Avy said, ‘Mom, Wren wants me to tell you that he’s a boy,’ and my response was a bit defensive. ‘I know he wants to be a boy.’ Avy said, ‘No mom, Wren is a boy.’ The way Avy said it, I finally got it.” When Wen talked with Wren about it, he burst into tears and told his mother that he had been having trouble sleeping because it was all he could think about. “I told him, ‘I love you no matter what. I love Wren and we’ll figure this out together.’”
With the aid of Dr. Kristopher Wells, Director of Programs and Services at the Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services at the University of Alberta, and Co-Director of Camp fYrefly for LGBTQ youth, Wen and her husband, Greg, helped Wren navigate his transition. Dr. Wells assured the couple that they were on the right track. He advised them to allow Wren to lead the process and to continue providing their unconditional love and support. He recommended that they see their pediatrician. This meeting, although positive in some ways, was not adequate and Wren still did not feel satisfied.
The family turned to Dr. Lorne Warneke, an Edmonton gender specialist, and it was over the course of a year that Wren eventually decided in Grade 5, just before spring break, to transition from female to male. This is the time when Wren asked to be referred to as ‘he’ instead of ‘she’.
Now 12, Wren has socially transitioned and is accepted as a boy at home, at school and in his community. Wen said she was happily surprised at the lack of bullying or negative reactions in their hometown of Edmonton.
Wren says there were questions from classmates, some of which he could answer and some of which he couldn’t. “They asked, ‘Do you know why gay or trans people get bullied?’ I said I honestly have no idea, maybe we’re taught that girls like boys and there’s nothing else to it; people are afraid because we’re different. They also asked me who I’m going to marry. I said, how should I know, I’m in Grade 5!”
But in spite of the community’s openness and acceptance of her child, Wen Kauffman admits the process was not always easy for her. “I had worries and troubles; the pronouns were a big thing for me.” Wren says his sister Avy was his best supporter: “She would correct everybody. She never made a mistake. It took lots of the pressure off.”
Wren remembers the first time his mother referred to him as a boy. “We were at the grocery store in line and she said, ‘I’m going to go get that for my son.’ I was so excited.’”
Now each summer, Wren attends Camp fYrefly. There, Wren is surrounded with children, youth and adults who identify as lesbian, gay, transgender or queer. “I met other trans kids there; I was happy about that. And it’s really fun. They have a game that’s a version of the Amazing Race. I look forward to it every year.”
Wren has also recently found another vote of acceptance – from the Alberta government. After filing a complaint with the Alberta Human Rights Commission, he was issued a new birth certificate with an ‘M’ instead of ‘F’. In the past, gender could not be changed before having gender reassignment surgery, but the government decided to drop that requirement.
Today, children like Wren who seek psychological or medical support are referred to as gender independent, gender creative, gender non-conforming, two-spirited or transgender. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM 5) in 2013 changed the diagnosis of “Gender Identity Disorder” to “Gender Dysphoria,” a condition in which a person identifies as being the opposite gender. (It is not the same as being gay, in which a person is sexually attracted to their same gender.)
“The current recommended medical and educational approach is to move away from treating gender identity dysphoria as a disorder, sickness or something that needs to be cured,” says Dr. Wells. “Rather, the most appropriate approach is one of education, support and affirmation (for children and their families) in which gender identity and gender expression are seen as a spectrum, rather than as an either/or male/female binary.”
Dr. Wells explains that when transgender children do not receive support from their parents, they often become extremely depressed, withdrawn, and in some cases suicidal. “For some parents, it is not an easy journey,” he says. “Many parents go through a grieving process for the child they thought they had, and the hopes and dreams that they created for their child.” Through counselling and support, parents can move from a sense of profound grief and loss to a newfound appreciation for the child who is finally happy and accepted for who they are. “As one family told me, ‘Sometimes you have to let your child become your teacher,’” says Dr. Wells.
As awareness of Gender Dysphoria and transgender people grows, support and acceptance are becoming more commonplace for families like the Kauffmans. Dr. Joey Bonifacio, adolescent medicine specialist and pediatrician at the new Transgender Youth Clinic at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, says this growing awareness is due to three factors: the Internet, trans people in the media and parents. “Parents are listening to their children and are open, open to advocating for their children and youth.”
The Toronto clinic, which opened in October 2013, provides interdisciplinary support and treatment for teens and children with Gender Dysphoria. Once a young person is referred, a team consisting of an adolescent medical doctor, a pediatric endocrinologist, a nurse practitioner and a social worker collaborates to meet the needs of both the young person and the family. “It’s not only a transition for the youth but for the family,” explains Dr. Bonifacio. In addition to his medical duties, Dr. Bonifacio sometimes provides support that is unique to the children he works with. For example, he’s had to write letters to schools because he was concerned with how kids were being treated by the staff there.
The social support provided through the clinic as well as resources in the community, like youth groups for LGBTQ youth and mental health services, are all critical because trans youth are so vulnerable. “These youth are suffering,” says Dr. Bonifacio. “They’re skipping school, they’re considering or attempting suicide. That’s why clinics like ours were created, to serve the needs of those kids.”
Social acceptance can come when someone has the courage to speak out. Ontario teen Jesse Thompson filed a complaint against Hockey Canada with the Ontario Human Rights Commission because he wasn’t allowed to change in the boys’ dressing room. (He has transitioned from being a girl.) Not only did the Ontario branch of Hockey Canada change its policy to let transgender people change in the dressing room that corresponds with their gender identity, it’s also going to train its coaches on gender identity, gender expression, discrimination and harassment.
Parents often ask themselves if they did something to cause their child’s condition. “Having a transgender child has nothing to do with poor parenting, neglect or abuse,” says Dr. Wells. “Much like a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity is considered to be an innate characteristic of a person and is not a choice, lifestyle or something that can be changed without great harm to a child. Trying to change your child can be one of the most harmful and destructive things a parent can do. Focus on loving the child you have, rather than trying to change your child to live up to your own hopes or dreams as a parent. This can be very hard for some parents to do.”
Kimberley Manning, mother and professor of political science at Concordia University in Montreal, understands the importance of acceptance. Her eight-year-old daughter, born male, has since age two behaved in ways that were not gender typically boyish.
“We were looking at her notebooks from daycare, the records of the teachers; every day when the kids had free play, she went right to the dressup box, put on the princess dress and crown and off she would go.” Her teacher took Kimberley aside one day and asked if she thought her child might be transgender. “I was shocked. I thought, this is a child, what are you talking about? I didn’t have anything in my parenting toolkit or life experience to prepare me for that moment.
“I kept thinking, what will happen when she heads to the dress-up box in kindergarten? How is my child going to be received by classmates? How do we ensure that this part of my child is not squelched? I started on my own path to identify and understand what we needed to do to support our child.”
The early weeks were difficult. Kimberley went online and was confused with the amount of contradictory information she found. But fortunately she also found Dr. Shuvo Ghosh, who heads up the Gender Variance Program at Montreal Children’s Hospital. Within months of meeting with Dr. Ghosh, Kimberley and her husband, Jason, determined that they did not have a safe school for their child; they held her back a year, keeping her in the very accepting preschool in which she was already enrolled.
When her daughter started Grade 1 at a new school, she came in as a girl, complete with feminine pronouns that she had been waiting for. That first year, Jason and Kimberley invited a psychologist to come in and lead a discussion in their daughter’s class, with parents, children and teachers, about gender and what it means to be transgender. The girl herself also led a discussion with her classmates for a school project about LGBTQ Pride, her favourite annual event.
“There have been some incidents of teasing, but so far we have nipped it in the bud,” says Kimberley. “The school psychologist did a good job. She read a book about a trans child to the kids doing the behaviour and asked the kids, ‘do you know anybody like this?’ They named our daughter but they also named other kids who were gender nonconforming. The teasing is taken very seriously and addressed immediately.”
Kimberley talked about her evolution into activism. “As I came out of the shock and the grief, I moved into a place of, ok, what can I do, this is my child’s life, and there’s not a lot out there right now. I moved to a place of action from an initial starting point of feeling overwhelmed and terrified.”
Dr. Ghosh introduced her to several other Montreal parents of trans children, including another academic, and a support group was born. Through funding from the Social Sciences Research Council of Canada, Kimberley and a team of scholars, parents and providers were able to mobilize new research and community-based resources. They held a national conference and created a bilingual website with resources, materials and a way for families to connect with each other, something critical for families in more rural areas. The Montreal-based parents have also formed the national organization, Gender Creative Kids Canada. The organization provides training sessions like the one held at the Mannings’ daughter’s school and is active in lobbying; they presented at the National Assembly, trying to get the law changed so gender can be changed on legal documents, whether there is sex reassignment surgery or not.
Kimberley talks about the importance of parental support in children’s health and well being. She cites a 2012 study, Impacts of Strong Parental Support for Trans Youth: A Report Prepared for Children’s Aid Society of Toronto and Delisle Youth Services, prepared for the Trans PULSE Project, in which the 433 Ontario trans study participants bolstered the acceptance model. “For youth with strong parental support, the likelihood of attempting suicide dropped from 57% to 4%,” she explained. “If you can pay attention, listen, and honor where your child is coming from, they have every possibility of thriving in their lives, living joyous lives, having connected relationships with all kinds of people. That’s what we need to focus on, creating the possibility of that connectedness.”
Dr. Wells agrees. “My message to parents of LGBTQ youth is simple. You need to love your child for who they are or you will lose them. They will become withdrawn, depressed, and may even run away. And sadly, some will even take their own life when they feel there is no hope for the future. The relationship any child has with their family can be the difference between sliding into a world of risk or developing the confidence and resiliency necessary to overcome adversity and thrive. What will you choose for your child?”
Wren Kauffman puts it simply: “I want people to know that if they have a trans or gay kid or any LGBTQ kind of kid, they should accept their kid. It’s not a choice I made, I was born like that; in reality my parents had a son all along.”
Books for parents
Books for kids
Gail Marlene Schwartz’s story, “Inside, Crying”, was a finalist for the 2014 Malahat Review Open Season award. She lives with her family in Montreal. Read more at gailwrites.net.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, December 2014.